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Volunteer fire departments struggling to fill their ranks

Call volume is skyrocketing and finding people who are willing to be volunteer firefighters is becoming increasingly difficult, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.
According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, out of the more than 1.1 million firefighters in the U.S., 745,000 of them – 67% - are volunteers.
Denise and Gabe King are the first mother-son duo to graduate from the Delaware State Fire School. They recently began volunteering at the local fire department in their hometown of Smyrna, Delaware.
Citizens' Hose Company in Smyrna, Delaware, has a sign out front, looking for additional volunteer firefighters for the department.
Posted at 11:14 AM, Jul 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-06 13:14:26-04

SMYRNA, Del. — It’s not your typical parent-child bonding time.

“Sometimes it's not always cool to have mom there with you,” said mom Denise King.

This is also not the typical place for parent-child bonding.

“[I] just asked him, ‘Hey, what do you think? If I join with you, would you mind?’” King recalled asking her 17-year-old son, Gabe, to fight fires together.

Denise and Gabe King are the first mother-son duo to graduate from the Delaware State Fire School.

“It was good. It wasn’t a bad thing,” Gabe said, of having his mom as a classmate at the fire academy.

The two recently joined the fire department in their hometown of Smyrna, Delaware.

“I've served in the military, so I've always had a love to kind of give back to my country, to my community,” Denise King said. “Just be there to help where I can.”

Their help is invaluable, literally.

In their fire company, everyone is an unpaid volunteer.

“Nobody that walks through our halls and our fire department gets paid at all. We don't receive a dime,” said Chris Hudson, public information officer for Citizens Hose Company, Smyrna’s fire department.

Hudson would know. He’s been a volunteer firefighter there for more than two decades.

“People don't think about volunteers,” he said. “So, out of sight, out of mind. You know you call 911, somebody's going to show up.”

Yet, that’s getting harder to do. Call volume is skyrocketing and willing volunteers are getting harder to find.

“The calls keep going up,” Hudson said. “And it's just not in Smyrna. It's around the country.”

According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, out of the more than 1.1 million firefighters in the U.S., 745,000 of them (67%) are volunteers.

All of their donated time and services amount to $47 billion a year.

However, the number of volunteer firefighters is on the decline, even as the number of calls to firefighters virtually tripled over the past three decades.

Volunteer firefighters in the U.S.:

1987 - 816,800

1997 - 803,350

2017 - 682,600

Calls to U.S. fire departments:

1987 - 12,237,500

1997 - 17,957,500

2017 - 34,683,500

“We need your help. Your local community needs your help. Whatever you can give--whether it be five hours a day, five hours a week, five hours a month --your local volunteer fire department is going to take it,” Hudson said.

That is how Denise and Gabe King came to be firefighters: they spotted the ‘Help Wanted’ sign outside the fire station.

Since joining the department a few months ago, they’ve already responded to multiple calls.

“You will have a big impact on the community, not only helping somebody in their darkest time but also coming to somebody's birthday party to drive by a fire truck for a little kid,” Gabe King said. “So, it's really a big impact you can make on this community if you really want to join.”

It’s a call that those who work in volunteer fire departments hope more people might choose to answer.

“When that siren goes off, everyone drops what they're doing from their homes and kind of comes running,” Denise King said.

For a list of volunteer opportunities at fire departments in your area, just click here or go to makemeafirefighter.org.